There’s more to dental hygiene than nagging your kids to brush their teeth after meals and snacks. By watching your diet during pregnancy and encouraging your kids to eat veggies instead of junk food after school, you can save a lifetime of smiles.
PREGNANCY AND INFANCY
Fetal tooth buds begin to form just five weeks into pregnancy. The teeth form between the third and sixth month. Your baby’s future dental health depends a great deal on your diet during pregnancy. It should be rich in calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A, C and D.
Your baby’s gummy smile is a delight — but don’t be fooled. Babies aren’t toothless! Underneath those gums are the 20 primary teeth that will erupt in the next 21/2 years and serve your child through the first part of life. Good dental hygiene starts early. After each feeding, or at least twice a day, wipe your baby’s gums with a damp cloth or gauze pad to remove plaque – the thin, sticky, colorless deposit of bacteria that constantly forms on both gums and teeth.
Continue a wiping regimen as baby’s teeth break through. Switch to brushing before all 20 teeth erupt, usually around age 2. During teething, you can soothe your child’s sore gums by rubbing your clean finger on them or giving your child a cool teething ring on which to chew.
Make sure your child gets enough fluoride, which makes teeth decay-resistant. Fluoride strengthens enamel even before teeth have broken through the gums! Fluoride in your drinking water may be enough if your child drinks one quart a day. But ask your child’s physician about fluoride drops, especially if you breast-feed your baby. Breast-fed babies don’t drink as much tap water as do formula-fed infants.
Never put your baby to bed with a bottle. When she dozes off with the bottle of milk, formula or juice in her mouth, pools of sugary liquid form next to the teeth. That can lead to early childhood caries (baby bottle tooth decay), which can literally destroy the teeth of an infant or young child. A bottle in bed containing any kind of liquid also can be a choking hazard. Likewise, never give your child a pacifier dipped in any sweet liquid. Also avoid sugary drinks. If you have any questions or see a problem, your child is never too young to see a pediatric dentist.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends children have their first dental checkup between the ages of 1 and 2. (If you have anxiety about visiting the dentist yourself, try to hide it from him — kids pick up on your emotions.) Regular visits help maintain healthy teeth and gums. And your dentist or dental hygienist can help with demonstrations of proper brushing and flossing.
Most children have a full set of 20 primary teeth by age 3. They’re important for chewing, speaking and appearance. Parents may figure they don’t have to worry about tooth decay, since baby teeth fall out anyway. But decayed teeth cause pain and can infect the jaw. More importantly, if a baby tooth has to be pulled, it leaves a space in the jaw that forces nearby teeth to grow out of position. The shape of your child’s jaw may be at stake. The last baby tooth doesn’t fall out until about age 12, so an investment in healthy baby teeth will pay off.
You must take charge of your child’s brushing and flossing until at least age 4 or 5, when most children may brush themselves with your supervision. Kids ages 6 to 7 and older can brush alone. Most kids can’t floss properly until about age 8.
Kids wear out toothbrushes quickly with all their enthusiasm. Bent bristles don’t clear off plaque and they can hurt gums, so replace your child’s toothbrush every three or four months. Look for one with a small head, soft, rounded bristles and a straight handle. Kids’ toothbrushes today feature all their favorite cartoon characters. Allowing your son to pick out his toothbrush may be an extra incentive to brush. When he brushes his teeth, he should use just a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. There are many kids’ flavored toothpastes on the market that don’t have as strong a flavor as an adult’s paste.
Don’t worry about thumb-sucking. Most dentists don’t become concerned unless the child is still sucking her thumb at age 5 or 6, when the first permanent teeth erupt. After that point, thumb-sucking may interfere with speech patterns and tooth position. Check with your dentist or your child’s physician if you fear there’s a problem.
Generally, baby teeth are lost in the same order in which they came in: incisors, canines and molars. The first permanent molars appear at about age 6. These molars determine the shape of the lower face. The substitution of new teeth is complete when the last molars come in at about age 12 or 14.
Tooth care is especially important during these years. A fun way to check how well your child brushes is to buy special colored tablets that show where plaque hasn’t been removed.
Some kids need braces to correct the position of their teeth. Correcting their bite will improve their chances for keeping their teeth throughout life. And it may help them face the world confidently if crooked teeth have made them self-conscious.
Wisdom teeth come in considerably later, and sometimes never. Wisdom teeth should be evaluated for position and impaction between ages16 and 20. Most third molars need to be removed.
Dentists are finding new success in preventing cavities with sealants, a sort of liquid plastic material applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth, where decay occurs most often. The sealant is a barrier against plaque and acid.
But the best — and least expensive — way to prevent cavities is to brush and floss properly and regularly and avoid sugary junk foods. Teach your child the art of “smart snacking” to minimize the danger to oral health. Candy bars last a few seconds, but cavities are forever! (See “Healthy Snacks for Kids.”)
The decay potential of snacks depends on how often your child snacks, how long the snack remains in the mouth and the physical form of the snack. Sticky foods, such as caramels, raisins, dried fruit, taffy and long-lasting hard candy, release sugars in the mouth over a long period of time.
Keep raw vegetables on hand for snacks, as well as low-sugar goodies such as fresh fruits, milk, cheese and nuts. Pizza, that favorite of all ages, is another good-tasting treat that’s good for teeth.
If you can, serve sweets only at the end of meals, when saliva is already flowing and able to help fight the acid buildup in plaque.
If you really have a problem with a snacker, ask your dentist to show your child photos or slides of people who have not taken good care of their teeth. The graphic evidence of neglect is often enough to change behavior.
Teeth are pretty hard, but kids can be even harder on them. Caution your children against using their teeth as bottle openers or for other non-eating purposes. And if your child is active in sports, insist that he wear a mouth protector.
If a tooth gets broken, cracked or knocked out of alignment, consult your child’s dentist immediately. A dentist may be able to replant the tooth in its natural socket, if you’re lucky. Follow these steps:
If you get your child and the tooth to the dentist within 30 minutes, you have a much better chance of saving the tooth.
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